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Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I welcome the Bill overwhelmingly in respect of both equality and human rights. The Secretary of State has set out the powers that the new commission will have to promote equality. Is it not the case that the powers of enforcement in respect of human rights are considerably weaker? There are no investigatory powers, no enforcement powers and no powers even to issue codes of practice. Am I missing the justification for that?
My hon. and learned Friend is quite right that we have distinguished between the new commission's powers in respect of anti-discrimination law and its powers in respect of human rights law. The reason is simple: human rights law covers such a wide range of potential obligationsparticularly, but not only, on public bodiesthat we decided that giving the commission the same powers in respect of human rights law as it will have in respect of anti-discrimination law would be to overburden it. It is too much to expect of it such a wide range of activities and expertise, as it might
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not be able to fulfil the burden of expectations or duties placed on it. We believe that we have the balance right as between securing the advantage of placing anti-discrimination law into the broader context of human rights and having a commission that will be able to promote understanding and awareness of human rights without, frankly, overburdening it or expecting it to do potentially everything for everybody. Therefore, the commission will have powers to conduct general inquiries into human rights issues, as well as into individual organisations' performance. In another new departure, it will also have powers to apply to intervene in human rights cases. The Bill does not lack powers in relation to human rights, but contains an appropriate balance of such powers.
As I said, the commission will also have a duty to promote good relations between all communities. We would expect it to give priority to the work that the Commission for Racial Equality has pioneered with black and ethnic minorities and faith communities. It will also have new powers explicitly to combat and monitor prejudice and crime affecting particular communities, such as hate crimes. Given the present enormous concerns among faith communities, especially about the rise of Islamaphobia and anti-Semitic prejudice, that power will be of particular importance.
A critical aspect of the commission's work will be to publish a regular "state of the nation" report. That triannual report will use hard measures and rigorous evidence to monitor the progress being made towards delivering greater equality of opportunity and tackling discrimination.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that a triannual report appearing, in effect, only once during a Parliament would not be enough? Should not the commission report every two years instead?
Ms Hewitt: That is something that we would be happy to look at further in Standing Committee. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's implication that he does not consider the commission's reporting functions as unnecessary red tape. I hope that we can agree on that, at least.
Whatever the interval, the report will be an important tool for holding to account the public sector, the Government and employers more broadly for the progress being made, as well as providing a means for Parliament and others to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies that the commission adopts to reduce inequality.
During the consultation process, organisations raised a number of important issues about how the commission will work. First, the commission needs to draw on the substantial existing expertise of those already working in different equality areas, including people in the current commissions. That point was made with great force, and we readily accept it. The appointment provisions in the Bill will ensure that members of the commission's board have knowledge and experience relevant to different areas of discrimination and human rights, and of the
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commission's functions in the round. Secondly, consultees stressedand we entirely acceptthat the commission needs to reach out to and involve all communities in its work. That is why it will have a new duty to consult with specific communities and the wider public on its strategic priorities. Thirdly, we have listened carefully to the views of people with disabilities. That relates to a point raised a moment ago. We have made provision for the establishment of a disability committee. Disabled people will form at least half of that committee's membership, to advise and take decisions on the commission's disability work.
Finally, we want to ensure that the commission responds fully to the distinctive needs and circumstances in Scotland and Wales. Therefore, the Bill ensures the commission has statutory committees in Scotland and Wales covering all aspects of its work.
Angela Eagle : There has been concern in the Disability Rights Commission that there is no direct representation of people with disabilities in the otherwise very effective equality body established in Northern Ireland. The Bill adopts a good approach, but can my right hon. Friend guarantee that that will continue, so that disabled people will know that they will always have direct representation on the new body? In that way, their voice will be heard directly, and just where it needs to be heard.
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, and I agree strongly. The voice of disabled people will be heard and felt strongly in the commission as a result of the provisions in the Bill, especially the establishment of the disability committee and the requirement that the board reflect the broad range of experience and expertise.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that the provisions of the Bill should be supported eventually by a single equalities Act? That would reinforce this Bill, and make it almost impossible for the equality commission not to take account of the interests of any sector of society likely to suffer discrimination.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned the Welsh committee, and I am pleased that the Government have recognised Wales' devolved nature. Can she say how the members of the Welsh committee will be appointed?
Ms Hewitt: I am not sure that I can, at the moment. That is an extremely important question, and I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality to deal with it when she winds up the debate.
I want to move on to part 2 of the Bill, which will plug a significant gap in existing equalities legislation. During the consultation process, a number of organisations strongly called for the extension of protection against religious discrimination. At present, that protection applies only to employment conditions. The Bill's provisions in respect of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief are designed to answer those concerns.
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The Bill will also address the imbalance that has emerged from case law under the Race Relations Act 1976. People of the Jewish faith and in the Sikh community are afforded protection in certain areas of the law as ethnic groups, while members of other religions and faiths are not. For example, a Jew or a Sikh who is refused service in a restaurant or a shop can challenge that discrimination through the legal system, but members of any other religion or belief who receive the same unfair treatment cannot. I hope that all hon. Members will agree that it is simply unacceptable that a shop, hotel or restaurant can lawfully refuse to serve Muslims, and a golf club can refuse to accept them as members, whereas the same practices would be outlawed if applied to Jewish or Sikh men and women.
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her team on this important Bill, but does she agree that, in this context, another lesson can be drawn from Northern Ireland? The very deep religious and cultural differences there meant that the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland played a crucial role in the Good Friday agreement. Its recognition of the differences was an essential element in resolving some of the cultural problems in Northern Ireland.
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend speaks from deep personal experience, as she made an enormous contribution to the process of achieving the Good Friday agreement. She is right: a commission that recognises the cultural differences that can give rise to prejudice and discrimination can help to create the fairer and more harmonious society that we all want. Finally, I should like to take this opportunity to say how much the House will miss my hon. Friend in the next Parliament.
Part 2 of the Bill will end the anomaly that I described. The proposed measures will make it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of religion or belief in the provision of goods, facilities or services, or to discriminate against or harass a person on those grounds in disposing of or renting property, in the provision of education or in the exercise of other public functions. Various exceptions are provided for, for example in the case of faith schools, Parliament, the security agencies and the armed forcesagain following precedent in these mattersand of course the courts.
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